The 76ers Training Complex in Camden, NJ is dressed up in the team’s illustrious past – statues of legends like Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving guide you to the front entrance, the weight room is overlooked by a larger than life image of Allen Iverson’s iconic stepover of Tyronn Lue, and the franchise’s three championship banners hang over the practice courts accompanied by a banner for each of the team’s retired numbers.
Brett Brown opened his annual “Coaches Circle” by acknowledging this accomplished history, “We are not an expansion franchise – being the Philadelphia 76ers matters, it’s important.” Brown’s focus, though, quickly turned from the rafters to the court, bringing the 1000+ coaches in attendance from the game’s past directly into its future. Pointing to subtle markings on the court, Coach Brown detailed how the team’s practice facility is fine tuned to influence the way the Sixers practice and how they embrace the changing NBA fueled by analytics.
Red boxes in the corners reiterate the importance of the corner three. A faint box below the blocks that extends just past the width of the lane signifies the “low zone”, while arcs inside the paint and beyond the three point line represent the “rebounding zone” and the “four point line” – a marker the Sixers use to help their offensive spacing. Finally, there is a single nail in the hardwood which represents the defensive “shell.”
According to Brown, the job of a coach is to connect the dots, to make sure that philosophy links to the system on the court and that the system maximizes the players’ skill sets. Individually, the marks on the practice court can be looked at as points of emphasis for the team’s play, but together they coexist and connect the team’s core philosophy and strategy to how the team executes on the court.
Brown uses these markings to help influence what type of players his team brings in. Citing the four point line, Coach says he asks every new arrival if they are “hugger or a stepper.” Huggers cling to the three point line when spotting up, while steppers hover beyond the line. For the offense that the Sixers want to run, Brown says he prefers steppers. Steppers force defenders to make choices, cause long closeouts, and let the Sixers play downhill. Steppers help “move the nail.”
Much of the evening’s lecture was done by Brown’s assistant coaches, a group that Brown says he has set up like an NFL coaching staff, with each assistant being assigned to a particular department. Kevin Young is in charge of the Sixers’ A to B motion offense, Monty Williams (the group’s newcomer) is tasked with drawing up specific plays for different situations, and Billy Lange is now the keeper of the team’s defense with Lloyd Pierce now in Atlanta.
Although the baton was passed between four different coaches, the message stayed the same throughout. Young, like Brown, proudly stated that in 2017-18, the Sixers ran the second least pick and rolls in the NBA, behind only Golden State. In the Sixers’ futuristic offense, “the pass is king” and the ball keeps moving until the right shot is found. For the Sixers, the right shot can be by anyone with the ball in their hands; in the modern NBA, everyone has to be a threat to score.
Monty Williams recalled an antidote from his time with the New York Knicks in the mid-90s, a group that played a bruising style of offense so slow that many say they nearly ruined the NBA. Williams claims his role with that team was that of a “ball mover,” someone who was supposed to get the ball to Ewing in the post. When he would shoot an open three, he would be plucked from the game, he recalled. He then turned to Brown and said, “That’s not how he coaches.” While running through the Sixers’ “eartug” series, Williams broke down all the different actions the series can run out of a Horns set that can lead to either threes or shots at the rim, keeping the Sixers’ analytic fueled philosophies at the forefront of the offense.
Both Williams and Lange expressed that attention to detail separates the good teams from the bad, and although that may come off as a proverbial coach euphemism, the Sixers practice what they preach. Williams explained that the patience to wait for a screen to be in place before cutting can give off-ball movers that needed extra second of space. Meanwhile, Lange lamented how defensive foot placement can be the difference between a drive down the middle of the lane and forcing a ball handler into the “low zone.”
With the franchise’s history providing them a scenic backdrop, Brett Brown and his staff provided over 1000 local basketball coaches with a crash course in the modern game. As long as Brown is at the helm of the Sixers machine, expect him to continue to embrace the changing game, as he looks to connect the dots between the team’s past glory and their bright future.